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Op-Ed: Separating Families — Wrong at the Border and Wrong in New Jersey

NJ punishes children of parents in prison, but pending legislation would help mitigate the damage

Jazmyne McNeese
Jazmyne McNeese

The detainment of almost 3,000 children and the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border have evoked an intensive national protest on the morality and humanity of incarceration. Having grown up with an incarcerated parent, it is heartening for me to see the public critically assess our nation’s justice system.

Separating families is neither a new practice nor one unique to immigration. The United States — including New Jersey — has a long history of incarcerating people of color and separating them from their families.

My family was separated by criminal justice system

Like the thousands of families split up at the border, my family was also separated, not at the hands of ICE, but via the much vaster criminal justice system. My father has been incarcerated for over 20 years and sent to three separate correctional facilities, thereby preventing us from seeing each other on a regular basis to build a strong relationship.

I sympathize with the families being broken apart at the border because I know what it’s like to grow up without a parent. I know what it’s like to have to pick up the pieces of your personal history because your parent is not there. I know what it’s like to have your parent taken away, with no idea when or if they will come back home. What is even more upsetting is that those who create and carry out these policies either do not know or do not care about the harm they are creating, and they continue to separate children from their families without concern.

How can we be shocked?

How can we be shocked by the crisis at the border when we’ve implemented a criminal justice system that treats our own citizens the same way? What checks do we have in place to ensure that we exhaust all options before separating New Jerseyans from their families? As a nation, we’ve become accepting of the mechanics of our criminal justice system without doing enough to critique its consequences. But there is a better way forward.

Today, incarcerated parents, advocates, and organizers are fighting to prevent the separation of families with a better alternative. As the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border gives us the opportunity to understand the many consequences of separation and incarceration, it is important that we now pursue policies that produce solutions based on the inherent dignity and humanity of every person.

A bill currently pending in New Jersey’s Legislature — the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act (A-3979) — combats child-family separation with new protections for incarcerated primary caretaker parents. More specifically, this bill allows incarcerated parents to be placed in a facility closer to their children so that they have a reasonable chance to see them. It also establishes a pilot program for the incarcerated parents to have overnight visits with their children and encourages visitation opportunities that don’t limit the number of children allowed per visit.

The bill also prohibits the use of solitary confinement and shackling of pregnant inmates, and provides parenting classes for inmates with children. These proposals would be sensible changes to the incarceration system; they recognize the importance of familial connections and place the humanity and dignity of inmates at the center of decision making. In short, they are changes that prioritize rehabilitation as an achievable goal.

Many inmates have given up

It is important to recognize that long periods of parent-child separation are lost time that can never be recaptured. And due to many of the inherent difficulties in our criminal justice system — such as backed-up systems for authorizing release, inmates without the financial means to invest in legal counsel, and the lack of familial support that comes from separation — many inmates have just given up.

While not perfect, the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act aims to turn the page on New Jersey’s punitive justice system and seeks to implement thoughtful and innovative reform. While it can be very challenging, we as a state and country need to prioritize the implementation of solutions that respect and protect the dignity of inmates and their families.

Incarceration is an awful reality for thousands of New Jerseyans, but we have the chance to make the best out of a terrible situation. Punishing and harming the children of incarcerated parents is not necessary. To honor the values that we espouse and to improve the lives of children, we must pursue policies that reflect our moral standards.

New Jersey says it values families, but our current incarceration policies fail to reflect that. The Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretakers Act is an opportunity for New Jersey to be an example for the rest of the country in keeping families together and implementing policy that centers our values and accounts for the humanity of every person. It is time to end the status quo of separation and harm by investing in communities and supporting families, not just at the border but right here at home.

Jazmyne McNeese is the 2018 Kathleen Crotty Fellow at New Jersey Policy Perspective. She has a master’s in public policy from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and will continue her education this fall as a Ph.D. student at Rutgers Camden.

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